For a second straight week, an improbable storyline will take center stage for Nebraska football.
Once again, the Huskers aren’t being talked about on the favorable end.
In head coach Matt Rhule’s Nebraska debut, the result of the game provided the drama. He started his tenure with a one-score loss to Minnesota plagued with late errors, reminiscent of the surreal defeats the team took many times under Scott Frost in 2021 and 2022.
A loss to the Gophers was generally expected, but another odds-defying collapse made it as painful as possible.
This week, the opponent brings the story before the game even kicks off. Fellow first-year coach Deion Sanders won his first game with Colorado, knocking off No. 17 TCU 45-42. One of the biggest stories of the offseason was the Buffaloes’ extreme roster turnaround after a 1-11 season, and so much new talent understandably brought doubt for what Sanders could do in his first year.
Perhaps more dramatic than the roster flip has been the change in outside hype for the now-ranked Colorado team after a quality win. The attention toward Sanders was already there thanks to his personality, which drew eyes in his playing career and as the successful coach of Jackson State. Now, his team has started strong, led by the impressive talents of quarterback Shedeur Sanders and two-way player Travis Hunter.
As a result, Nebraska enters Boulder as bigger public underdogs than the Vegas lines would suggest. The opening week only added more fuel to a rivalry game that was always going to draw plenty of attention and has been discussed throughout the offseason.
Rhule and Sanders were both hired following the 2022 season, replacing coaches that didn’t even make it halfway through that year’s schedule. They were both hired to lift struggling programs to success, but there’s been a clear contrast in their methods.
The Husker coach is best known as a program builder. He’s had two college head coaching stops — Temple and Baylor — and both went the same way. Poor opening years, a .500 regular season in year two, and double-digit wins by year three. There’s belief that things can happen a bit quicker at Nebraska, but he was hired for the long-term outlook.
That’s not quite the same situation with Colorado. Sanders was quick to overturn the roster and bring in the best talent he could find. Many believe the fast-rising coach won’t be there long, whether that be due to great success or great failure. The Buffaloes have no interest in waiting.
“We told you we coming,” Sanders said after the win against TCU. “You thought we was joking. And guess what? We keep receipts.”
This week, Rhule said he respected Sanders’ methods and had praise for the coach, as did Sanders for Rhule. But earlier this offseason, Nebraska’s coach did make clear that he does things in a different way.
“I hear other schools talking about they can’t wait for today, the transfer portal, they can’t wait to go out,” Rhule said in the spring. “I can’t wait to coach my guys … I’m not thinking about anybody else other than this team that’s out here.”
That statement was not directed toward anyone in particular, but was interpreted by some as a shot toward Sanders. It might not have been meant as one, but it’s no surprise that people would relate it to the program that most openly embraced the portal.
In some ways, Sanders is what Nebraska aimed to get away from. The public confidence in the lead-up to his opening season is Frost-esque. The former Husker coach didn’t overturn the roster like this, but his critique of the culture under Mike Riley showed a different type of disregard for what the program had been in the years before his arrival.
I don’t want to go too far with this comparison, as Sanders’ approach is unique and nearly impossible to be replicated. He has the status to bring in talents like Hunter, and that’s much of why he started his Colorado career with a top-25 win. Doubters, such as myself to an extent, underestimated just how much of an impact the top-end talent could have.
That all has brought us to this week. No. 22 Colorado enters Saturday with immeasurable hype and a high-powered passing offense. The styles contrast on the field, too — Nebraska’s offense struggled in the opener and its strength is the run game. The Buffaloes’ defense was unimpressive against TCU, while the Huskers’ nearly earned them a win.
I lean toward Colorado to get this win. Should the Huskers indeed drop to 0-2, that might be a hard pill to swallow for some. Part of Rhule’s rebuild attempt, especially in this day and age of the sport, means some new coaches will find success faster than Nebraska hypothetically will. There’s a good chance that’ll be true regardless of the result of this game.
Sanders and his team look to shine in these moments, as they did in week one. Rhule keeps an eye on building for the future, but he and the Huskers surely would love to pull the upset on the road with plenty of supportive fans. If they can do so, it’d inspire confidence for the rest of this season and the years to come.